Tom Rob Smith: Child 44
When the Booker longlist was announced late last month, I don’t think there was anyone who would have expected to see Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 make the cut, including Smith himself. It no doubt surprised many that the publisher even had the gall to submit it. Why? Because it’s a thriller and, with the old snobbery hat on, thrillers don’t belong in the Booker. However, that’s a straight out lie, since thrillers have been in the running before, but usually by writers for whom such books are not the only string to their bow. But, as Oscar Wilde said, books are either well written or badly written, and that is all. So which is Child 44?
A portentous cover, featuring praise limited to those also treading the crime genre, such as Lee Child and Nelson DeMille, rings alarm bells. Likewise an encomium from a screenwriter who, from his snippet, can’t seem to see past the action. And in reading Child 44, it’s no surprise to find that Tom Rob Smith is also a screenwriter.
The novel reads like a film and, as it turns out, it started life as a treatment but became a novel at the advice of Smith’s film agent. Sadly, it maintains the shallow depth of a script – dialogue, some scene setting – as Smith has written it with an eye – if not both – squarely on a big budget, big screen outing.
Opening with a scene in Ukraine in 1933, where a couple of young boys hunt for a cat to alleviate the starvation that has gripped the nation, the story then fast fowards twenty years and introduces us to Leo Demidov, war hero and officer in the Ministry of State Security. Demidov is tasked with relaying to the grieving family of a young boy, found mutiltated by a railway lin, that the death was accidental. In this, Smith introduces us to the central conceit of his setting: there is no crime.
“Few people believed this absolutely. There were blemishes: this was a society still in transition, not perfect yet. As an MGB officer it was Leo’s duty to study the works of Lenin, in fact it was every citizen’s duty. He knew that social excesses – crime – would wither away as poverty and want disappeared. They hadn’t reached that plateau yet. Things were stolen, drunken disputes became violent: there were the urki – the criminal gangs. But people had to believe that they were moving to a better state of existence. To call this murder was to take a giant step backwards.
Of course, it’s definitely murder most foul, although similar incidents are treated as isolated ones, with innocents being tried and executed to cover up the fact that Russia has a serial killer in its midst. While it opens with an interesting idea, of a man conflicted between adherence to state doctrine and what his own eyes tell him, these first two hundred plus pages – the events of which are are spelled out in the inside cover – are more a set up for what is to come, namely standard action fare.
It’s a treasure trove of nonsense that leads to the most risible modus operandi put in print. But in getting there, there’s much more to cringe at. Smith has chosen a pointless quirk of representing all dialogue in italics; his research rarely extends beyond a sprinkling of Russian words, each immediately explained; he has trouble maintaining viewpoint, sometimes even within a paragraph; and, most foul, he tells everything. Not at one point do you ever infer something – there’s no imagination required.
Smith bumbles in and out of characters heads, revealing their every thought (where action would be better suited) and it leaves the reader breathless with the book in hand wondering where they come into it. And that’s entertainment? Child 44, I think, is two novels in one, each extremely underdone: the potential conflict study of self and State, and the run of the mill thriller. I suspect Smith intended the latter, and could easily have done away with the first half of the book. But he’s a man who likes to pad out with scenes that would look good on screen, even if they serve nothing on the page.
Without the Booker I would never have read Child 44, and that’s what is most annoying about the book: that is a throwaway entertainment that fails to entertain. We can only guess as to the sanity of the Booker panel in selecting this book. But for a thriller that is supposed to have numerous shocking twists and turns, the biggest shock is that something with so much padding could still leave me so cold.
August 12, 2008